Seeing New Possibilities, Renni S. Altman, DD

“Seeing New Possibilities”
A Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah 5783
Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD
Vassar Temple

How many of you have seen images from the James Webb Space telescope? Pretty awesome, right? I have to admit, astronomy is not my thing. I actually dropped Intro to Astronomy with Carl Sagan in college because I just couldn’t follow what he was saying. Those images, though, are simply mind boggling.

When they were first revealed this summer, President Biden captured our amazement at what NASA described as our deepest view into our universe’s past, when he said “We can see possibilities no one has ever seen before.”

Seeing possibilities. This really is the essence of these Yamim Noraim. We set aside these days annually to search within ourselves, striving to see possibilities we may have never seen before. Judaism begins the New Year with ten days of repentance precisely because we believe in the possibility of change. The past – things that happened to us or things we did – does not have to determine our future. We have the opportunity to write that ourselves, to choose how we will live.

Among the opening reflections in our mahzor is a teaching by Rabbi Laura Geller that underscores this fundamental principle of our faith:

“Your Book of Life doesn’t begin today, on Rosh HaShanah. It began when you were born. Some of the chapters were written by other people: your parents, siblings, and teachers. Parts of your book were crafted out of experiences you had because of other people’s decisions: where you lived, what schools you went to, what your homes were like. But the message of Rosh HaShanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, is that everything can be made new again, that much of your book is written every day by the choices you make. The book is not written and sealed; you get to edit it, decide what parts you want to leave behind. Shanah tovah means both a good year, and a good change. Today you can change the rest of your life. It is never too late.”

The notion of choice, so fundamental in Judaism, is very empowering. It is the guiding principle of the work of psychologist, Dr. Edith Eva Eger. Her inspiring memoir, The Choice: Embrace the Possible, describes her incredible life story: a native of Hungary, she was 16 when she and her family were sent to Auschwitz. She and her sister survived; her parents perished. Today, in her 90s, Eger still maintains her psychology practice, lectures and serves as a consultant for the US Army and Navy in resiliency training and the treatment of PTSD. Her memoir interweaves with the stories of her patients her own life journey, the challenges she faced, and how she ultimately found healing from her traumatic past, eventually confronting her deepest pain by returning to Auschwitz. She empowers her patients to choose to break free from the experiences and thought processes that have imprisoned them and to embrace true freedom by opening their hearts to see the possible.

For many years Eger couldn’t bear to talk about Auschwitz, she didn’t even want her children to know that she was there and would get angry at her husband if he mentioned it. She struggled with flashbacks and survivor’s guilt. Then someone gave her Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. A key teaching in his book about how he survived the camps struck her deeply: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” “Each moment is a choice,” writes Eger. “No matter how frustrating or boring or constraining or painful or oppressive our experience, we can always choose how we respond. And I finally begin to understand that I, too, have choice. This realization will change my life.

The recognition that we have the power to choose how we respond to the experiences of our lives, while certainly powerful for those who have suffered trauma, is not limited to such dramatic situations. It is a lesson for anyone who has faced challenges, anyone who has wrestled with disappointments or experienced failure, anyone who has made mistakes – and that means all of us.

“We can’t choose to vanish the dark,” teaches Eger, “but we can choose to kindle the light.” We can choose to take a different path, to embrace new possibilities, but that will take effort and commitment on our part. As we all know, change isn’t easy. Our old prayer book for Selichot had a reading I appreciated as it expressed well the challenge of change:

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to turn. It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy. It means starting all over again, and this is always painful. It means saying, “I am sorry.” It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped for ever in yesterday’s ways.

These are the steps of Teshuva, of repentance, that our tradition lies out for us.

Eger offers her readers and patients a similar process. We can only change, we can only embrace the possible she writes “when we choose to take responsibility, when we choose to take risks, and finally, when we choose to release the wound, to let of the past or the grief.”

We can begin to change when we take responsibility for our actions and recognize that we have a part in maintaining unhealthy patterns, that which keep us stuck in old ways, in fear, in anger. While it may be that others are responsible as well, if we absolve ourselves and only blame others or circumstances, then we give up the essential control of our lives that is necessary to become the person we want to be, the person we can be.

We will begin to change when we choose to take risks and dare to go down a different path. That means breaking out of old habits, leaving behind that which, while harmful, is familiar and, ironically, feels safe, to try something new. Certainly, it will be uncomfortable at first and it is to be unexpected that there may well be steps backwards, but if we persevere, we will be better for it in the long run.

Finally, embracing the possible requires letting go of the past, of the hurt, of the anger, of the grief. Where appropriate, it means forgiveness. In some cases, there is no possibility of or warrant for forgiveness; then there can only be an acceptance of what was and a separation from, a leaving behind, that can free us to move forward.

All too often, it is hardest to forgive ourselves. In so many of the patient stories that Eger shared in her book, people carried tremendous guilt for things for which they blamed themselves that were not at all in their control: the parents who couldn’t have prevented their son’s suicide, the woman who could not have fought back against the family friend who raped her as a child. It was only when, with Eger’s guidance, they were able to forgive themselves, for something that wasn’t their fault, that they were finally able to take important steps towards healing and change.

Speaking to an army unit that had just returned from combat in Afghanistan, a unit with a high suicide rate, Eger shared the importance of forgiving oneself: “to run away from the past or to fight against our present pain is to imprison ourselves. “Freedom is in accepting what is and forgiving ourselves, in opening our hearts to discover the miracles that exist now.”

For most of us, I would imagine, it is the ability to forgive ourselves for things that we have done wrong that is the challenge. Forgiving ourselves is an essential step in the process of teshuvah, of making amends with others for ways that we have hurt them. It is also essential if we are to learn from those mistakes and change in the future.

Dr. Maya Angelou paints a powerful picture of the impact that unforgiven mistakes can have on us: “I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes. It is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, “Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,” that’s all. So you say to yourself, “I’m sorry.”

If we all hold onto the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror. We can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.”

On Rosh Hashanah, we strive to see what we are capable of being, to see beyond the mistakes, beyond the pain, trauma, and disappointment, to “see possibilities we have never seen before.” We get to decide what parts of our Book of Life we want to carry forward and what we want to write anew, what we want to transform with a Shanah Tovah, a good change.

On Rosh Hashanah, we say Hayom Harat HaOlam – this is the world’s birthday. A colleague pointed out recently that this expression translates literally as “today, the world is pregnant.”
This is an instance where the literal translation is preferable to the idiomatic as it captures the Jewish attitude towards each new year:

It is pregnant with possibilities: the possibility of new beginnings, of starting over, of being different, of returning to who we really are and want to be. We believe in the possibility of change — in ourselves, in others, in our world.

May we be blessed with the strength, wisdom and open heartedness to discover new possibilities in this new year.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu – may you be written in the Book of Life for a good change this year.

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